I’ve been running businesses for nearly 17 years and driven down the roads of incredible confidence, feeling invincible to crushing defeat and vulnerability. And I’m banking that most readers would have travelled similarly, writes Sue Parker.
During 2020 many businesses laid bare their economic, mental health and sustainability fears. Indeed it was a year of grief, support and survival. We witnessed many stepping out with their stories of vulnerability and fear.
And likewise, many kept a brave face no matter the reality.
Fervent and stoic hyperbole (both online and offline) can also be a diversion from truth to take the heat off the cauldron of shame and fear. All that glitters isn’t always gold and whom we think are thriving may not be and vice versa.
But when just one person dares to share their reality and story behind the glitter, countless others feel encouraged to step out also. That person can often be the voice for many. By virtue, it delivers contagion permission to speak up without fear and judgement. This scenario plays out every day in all aspects of life, business, schools, courts, church and state.
Shame & Vulnerability
Brené Brown, the world’s leading researcher on shame, vulnerability, courage and empathy, teaches that shame is highly destructive. She defines the difference between shame and guilt:
“I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore, unworthy of love and belonging. Something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. “
“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behaviour than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
This definition flicks the switch off the heat of shame and fear and broadens self-awareness and understanding. Dr Brown also shares:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” and “vulnerability is not a weakness but a myth which is profoundly dangerous.”
Denying vulnerability truly harms humans and businesses and necessitates removing the glitter and gloss upfront. There is an obvious demarcation between positivity and denial, and the swing is fluid.
Hope is a far more practical and empowering perspective often than fairy tale positivity.
Even before COVID-19, self-employment and small-business ownership wasn’t all great freedom, a deluge of $$$, beers and skittles. Of course, it can be, but the truth is it has more ups and downs than a roller coaster at Luna Park. And for many now with an ongoing environment of uncertainty in some sectors, it is even more pronounced.
Financial pressures can swing the culinary gates from lobster and expensive champagne to baked beans on toast and cheap shiraz. I have also swum in pools of great success and self-worth next to deep lakes of disasters and pain. And I still hold season tickets for the rollercoaster of self-esteem.
Never judge a book by the cover is a motto that rings personally true as few would realise my own Luna park traverses despite the embolden exterior.
I have learnt to share my truth in a way that resonates and is appropriate.
Self-doubt, mental health, physical stresses and loneliness are well documented in small business. Feeling that we are on top of our game is a tight rope, we grapple with as relentless pressures abound.
Most sectors face varying degrees of disruption and competition. We are bombarded with digital media saturation, technical tools and marketing overwhelm to navigate. The pressure to be seen to be smashing it, being super popular and nailing incredible success on social media is gruelling.
Sitting in a room without air
And there can be the extra layer of family financial demands and time pressures to navigate. But feelings of inadequacy and not feeling good enough (shame) can sabotage business and personal success and happiness. It will display in many ways with the common thread of not wanting to ask for help and not being willing to be vulnerable. Concealing feelings and the truth of situations is not a fun place to sit. It’s like sitting in a room without air.
There is a long line between the adage of ‘fake it till you make it’ and honest vulnerability. Butterflies in the stomach before a TV interview or nervousness before presenting at a conference is not the same space. It sits in the ‘practice makes perfect’ and ‘I am always learning’ seat. That is a positive place compared to shame which is damaging and erodes.
Differences in responding
While coaching hundreds of men and women in their careers and businesses over the last 16 years, I have observed several common denominators where shame interplayed with negative consequences.
Men often struggled with asking for any help, preferring to sort things out themselves. Embarrassment about circumstances, when combined with a lack of self-worth, would cause immeasurable harm. Fear of admitting they were suffering and had lost their sense of business direction or truth was common. The shame of letting others down keeps many men closed off for help and development.
Meanwhile, women often struggled with imposter syndrome. A form of shame, it’s a belief you are not fundamentally good enough that saw them struggle to market themselves and ‘put themselves out there’. They felt shame if their work didn’t speak for itself, and hence it felt too vulnerable to champion themselves.
How to be vulnerable
- Sharing your truth and vulnerability permits others to share their own. Honest stories build trust and a calming sense that ‘you are not alone’. When we hear others have also experienced similar issues and feelings, shame is diminished, and space for solutions and support emerges.
- Share when you are looking for new clients. Of course, you may want to frame it to your style. But admit it. Suppose your wall of glitter on social media is all smashing it, prancing and dancing. In that case, people will think you are just not available for them.
Ditch the ‘so busy mantra’ in the hope it will build your credibility. It is not only dull to hear, but potential clients will be lost—the same precept of wanting to appear much more significant than you are.
- Hold your power in your business’s size and focus on marketing your value, not the gloss of ostensible ‘big is better’.
- Admit when you need support (in whatever way is relevant) from family, lenders, friends, staff and suppliers. Be truly honest. You might be amazed at the results and ideas.
- Ask for help in understanding new technologies or business tools. Everyone has different learning styles and time frames of absorption. We are all different, and it’s okay.
- Don’t be pressured into following what the masses are doing online if it doesn’t feel authentic. Being vulnerable also means saying no.
- Be mindful that “reality statements are not value-judgements.”
We are all human beings navigating our way through businesses and life. There is no shame in not having all the answers, not always smashing and being vulnerable.
In a world where communication of our brand builds trust, vulnerability can be a real 2021 superpower.
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